Fifty years of stories


Who goes there?

It was in the late 1960s and we were working at Fermilab. There were a number of us British expatriates there. It was called the “brain drain” because many large government-funded projects needed help from Europe. The space program, high-energy physics research and various nuclear power undertakings competed with each other for the inadequate number of qualified American technologists needed, and aid from abroad was welcomed.

My English friend Roy Billinge had been given a sizeable responsibility involving the construction of the main components of a particle accelerator on a 10-square-mile site on the prairie, 40 miles from Chicago. The budget allotted by Congress was adequate, but the time scale was tight. The success of the project hinged on each needed item being available on time. A delay with a critical component could slow the project down or even cause it to fail.

Roy, a manager who could be relied upon to take ingenious original decisions, decided to import some talent from England. He found a worker at a laboratory near Oxford who was known for his entrepreneurial skills. His name was Bob Sheldon. He would join the project as a fixer, and his specific responsibility was to look out for items with a long delivery delay and try to find alternative sources. At the same time he was to keep an eye open for possible shortcuts and money-saving ideas. A process like that, competently pursued, could easily save enough money and time for his salary to be insignificant.

It worked! Bob brought his wife from England, and the two of them were a wonderful addition to the social life at the lab too. Bob was an affable North-countryman with an expansive personality and got on well with people. Any engineer or physicist in the team who was placing an order for raw materials, machines or high-tech instrumentation would first consult Bob, who made some inquiries and often found a solution that saved time or cost less.

Felicia investigates the opening in a vacuum pipe in the Meson Lab with the help of Wally Pelczarski, designer in the Main Ring Section. Photo: Tim Fielding

The accelerator was completed on schedule and well within budget. They tried to get it working, but the particles consistently failed to circulate in the miles-long stainless steel tube. The tube was a little larger than the diameter of a tennis ball and was normally pumped out to extract all the air so that the particles could circulate unimpeded. Was there a blockage? Had a workman left an object in the tube? How to find an obstruction in all those miles of tubing? Ask Bob, of course.

As predicted, Bob had a solution. In his part of Yorkshire, hunters used ferrets. Ferrets are weasel-like mammals who enjoy going down tunnels and flushing out rabbits. A ferret would not hesitate to run down the inside of the stainless steel tube, even if that involved a long journey into the unknown. Furthermore, it would be a sort of green solution to a technical problem, and everybody liked the idea of that. Bob was delegated to find and purchase a ferret and get instructions on its care and upkeep. It formed a talking point in the interval before its arrival. Suppose the ferret, instead of finding an obstruction, caused one by leaving droppings in the tube? Give it an aperient beforehand, perhaps?

The ferret arrived in a cage. They called her Felicia, and she soon won everyone over. The potential problem of the droppings was avoided by supplying Felicia with a diaper. Felicia was introduced to the stainless steel tube and went down it without hesitation. Hours later she emerged, looking a little tired and bemused but otherwise quite healthy. There was no obstruction.

The mathematicians found out why the particles had failed to circulate. It was something to do with the stability of the orbit, and the particles were crashing into the wall of the tube long before they completed their circular journey. They even found a solution, and they were able to pension off Felicia and relegate her to the position of laboratory pet and mascot. Bob escaped from the situation with his reputation intact. After all, he had furnished a solution to the problem as it had been put to him.

I wonder whether Felicia is still remembered at Fermilab?

Frank Beck is a retired CERN staff member living in England. He spent two years at the Fermilab as head of research services when the Energy Saver was being commissioned.

Editor’s note: For more about the pipe-cleaning ferret, have a look at various local newspaper accounts of Felicia recorded on the History and Archives Project website. Also check out a 1971 issue of The Village Crier. The Village Crier published an obituary of Felicia a year later.

By all accounts, Fermilab founding director Robert Wilson was a charismatic individual. Here he's seen leading the first NAL Meeting at Lab 3 in the Village. Photo: Fermilab

My first year at Fermilab was 1968. I was a maintenance man when I first started, and we did all kinds of things in the early days: digging holes for trees, planting trees, shoveling snow, plowing snow, hauling garbage. We took care of furnaces, toilets, windows, window shades. We exchanged water bottles for drinking water, moved furniture, ran errands.

I worked on Robert Wilson’s car at times, which I enjoyed. We also did a lot of yard work out at Site 29. Wilson liked it clear, and we spent at least a good summer clearing the brush in the front of the house. There were lots of hawthorn trees in the front yard. The thorns in them would fall out, and our lawn tractor would get flat tires — constantly. So we made some steel wheels for the front of the tractor.

Our crew worked closely with Wilson. He was very charismatic, very friendly and outgoing. If he met you once, he remembered you by name. We’d have hot dog cookouts in our shop on Fridays, and our boss, George (I got called little George for forever), would always invite the directorate. They came over and had hot dogs with us, and we chatted.

I appreciated Wilson’s attitude toward the lab’s trees and landscaping. I was told you needed his permission to cut a tree down or even cut a limb from a tree. According to one story, Wilson moved the beam target areas because there was a group of trees at the targets’ planned location.

Wilson didn’t like things that reminded him of the war years. He didn’t like barbed wire. One of the early jobs I did was going around cutting barbed wire off the fences. He didn’t like fences, period, but particularly didn’t like barbed wire. In one case, right across from our office was a water tower with a fence around it and some barbed wire on top. I had to go cut that off. He wanted no part of it. Eventually, he took the fence and everything down. He also didn’t like trailers or Quonset huts – anything that was military-related. Word was he was just intense about that kind of thing.

As a director, he was completely geared to building an accelerator — very hands-on in that respect.

I vaguely remember the speech he gave in front of the old director’s complex. We were all standing out in the street. He said something to the effect that we had just received a few million dollars, and we were going to spend it all in the next couple of days so we could build our machine. That was his attitude.

He was building a laboratory, and we were going to build an accelerator — today.

The first office building for National Accelerator Laboratory was in Oak Brook. In 1967 it was the only tower in Oak Brook Executive Plaza. Photo: Fermilab

The first office building for the National Accelerator Laboratory was in Oak Brook, Illinois. We occupied one floor of that high-rise building.

One day Robert Wilson decided that, instead of taking the elevator, he would climb 10 flights of stairs to work. Some of the rest of us followed his example, and then we got the idea that we’d see who could do it the fastest. Bob could get up there really quite quickly, and, as I was only 30 at the time, I took it as a challenge to see what I could do. It took a while, but eventually I was able to beat his time — about a minute. I called my wife and told her, in great excitement and very much out of breath, that I’d succeeded in a making a good run up the stairs. So did another one of the younger guys.

At the end of that year, 1967, the lab staff had finished the conceptual design report for the lab’s facilities and accelerators, and just as we were about to finish the day’s work, the power went off. A bulldozer had, in the course of aiding the construction of a new building next door, struck our power lines. People had to leave. There were many people from all building floors making their way down the pitch-dark stairways. I don’t know how anybody else did it, but I knew exactly how to get down. I ran down the stairs really fast — I knew the exact way to go!


Robert Wilson

It was in 1979. I was visiting the Fermilab on release from CERN, as a guest scientist, and enjoying the wonderful spirit of a young laboratory of world standing. It was a privilege, and my wife and I were able to rent a house on the site at Sauk Circle, right where the action was and conveniently near the various labs and workshops.

The director, Leon Lederman, had a house on the site too, and he and his wife Ellen had invited us to a dinner party one evening. On this occasion they had asked Leon’s secretary and a notable guest, Robert Wilson, the founder of the lab and Leon’s predecessor. Very exciting.

An interesting dinner guest was Professor Wilson. He regaled us with stories of the early days of the lab, and how he had juggled with his duties at the lab and his professorial responsibilities in Ithaca, New York, by commuting in chartered aircraft at least once a week.

Why are the stair handrails made of walnut?

He also told the story of the walnut trees, which I now repeat for the record.

Soon after the site was designated and taken over by the U.S. government, and before a security fence and checkpoints were in place, some thieves succeeded in cutting down several beautiful, mature walnut trees, the trunks of which they were clearly intending to collect and sell for a considerable sum. As it happens, they never returned to remove them for fear of apprehension now that their misdeed had been noticed.

Robert Rathbun Wilson was faced with a dilemma. Obviously this valuable resource, the property of the United States, had to be exploited for the benefit of its owners as efficiently as possible. After making inquiries, he discovered that because walnut was used to make veneer for fine furniture, these tree trunks were potentially very valuable. Thousands of dollars were involved. He decided to store the tree trunks as a budget reserve which would come in useful if he ever had to deal with a shortfall.

Three or four years later, the opportunity arose to use his timber nest egg. He then discovered what his informants had failed to tell him. The tree has to be reduced to veneer within a short time of felling. Disappointing. By now, it was just high-class furniture wood. Its potential as a source of veneer had been lost and its value was considerably lower.

He decided to make the best of it. The now seasoned timber would be used for the benefit of the newly constructed high-rise building.

And that is why the handrails in all the stairways of what is now called Wilson Hall are made of the very finest solid American Walnut.

Frank Beck is a retired CERN staff member living in England. He spent two years at the Fermilab as head of research services when the Energy Saver was being commissioned.

Editor’s note: Since posting this article, a couple of readers have chimed in with more information about the fate of the walnut trees. Some of the wood went into the construction of Ramsey Auditorium. Check out the History and Archives Project and a 1971 issue and a 1976 issue of The Village Crier (see page 2 in both). Read about the preservation of trees on the lab site and see a photo of the walnut trees from 1969 (here’s the 1969 newsletter). The same wood was used in 1981 to make the letters on the auditorium.

In 1972, Fermilab completed the Neutrino Dome (now called the Geodesic Dome), constructing it of materials you might find in your kitchen. Photo: Fermilab

It was in the 1970s, and Fermilab was in the middle of its construction phase. Bob Sheldon had been called in to look for shortcuts and cheaper solutions to problems. Flush with the success of his suggestion to look for obstructions in the accelerator tube by using a ferret, Bob had decided to contribute more original ideas.

Professor Wilson was busy erecting large abstract sculptures on the site. Interesting shapes and striking colors were the order of the day. Bob saw the opportunity for another innovative idea when one of the outlying buildings on the site, which was to be a support facility for a large particle detector, needed a roof.

If the building had to have a roof, why not a spectacular one? Buckminster Fuller’s creations were in full swing at the time and all the rage. A geodesic dome, made of triangles eight feet on a side, would certainly keep the elements out and, if the triangles were double-walled, provide heat insulation too. He decided to make the elements of his dome of two strong sheets of transparent plastic, separated by a large number of strengthening elements. Why not make a honeycomb of sheet metal cylinders, retrieved from salvaged drink cans with their ends punched out?

He quickly devised a simple tool to reduce an empty pop can to a cylinder of sheet metal by removing the circular ends. Now he could find a suitable adhesive and make a prototype triangle to show that the scheme was practicable.

How to obtain the necessary recycled drink cans in the thousands that would be required? Easy. Get some publicity, and appeal to all the schoolchildren in the surrounding area to collect empty soda cans. They would get a good feeling by participating in a serious grown-up project, and the lab would get its roof much more cheaply.

There was a flaw in the argument, of course. Technically, it was a triumph. But the social element had a fatal flaw.

When news of the project got into the local press, it was picked up by a large soft drink company. It wasn’t long before the Fermilab directorate received an official offer to supply the necessary tens of thousands of cylinders free of charge, from an early stage in the production line and before the circular ends had been installed.

It was an offer they couldn’t refuse, and the schoolchildren’s efforts were no longer needed. So the roof was constructed, and it worked.

Frank Beck is a retired CERN staff member living in England. He spent two years at the Fermilab as head of research services when the Energy Saver was being commissioned.

Editor’s note: For more about the construction of the Geodesic Dome, see a collection of articles on the History and Archives Project website. You can also see photos of the roof before it was completed. It received a copper facelift in 1982.

Robert Wilson constructs on

Robert Wilson was a man born out of his time.

He lived in America from 1914 to 2000, but he really belonged to the central Italy of the 1500s. He knew this, but was determined to make the best of the opportunities afforded by the 20th century.

Robert Rathbun Wilson was a son of a small American township called Frontier, Wyoming, but while his intellectual brilliance and talents soon took him to many more interesting places, he never forgot or underestimated his roots in small-time America.

His academic success took him to California, where he studied physics to doctoral level, studying under Ernest O. Lawrence on the theory of the cyclotron. By the time the United States entered the war he was working with Robert Oppenheimer, who recruited him as a group leader at Los Alamos, where he contributed to the building of the first atomic bomb. He then retired to a more peaceful existence as a professor at Cornell University.

When in the 1960s United States decided to build the world’s largest particle accelerator, Robert Wilson was the obvious choice of a man to build it. A site was chosen on the prairie, 40 miles out of Chicago. Boring, flat farmland is not a very exciting place to attract the brains that would clearly be needed to man it.

Robert Wilson was up to the challenge. His own personality and reputation were sufficient to attract the talent he needed, and he soon had a small team of potential group leaders with the requisite skills.

The site, about 10 square miles in extent, comprised more than 50 farms whose owners had been reimbursed by the government, some woods and an old cemetery. Wilson had the clapboard houses moved physically to make a charming little artificial village, found a site for the accelerator, which was to be a circular structure about a mile across, designed and built a laboratory building 15 stories high, stocked the site with a herd of American bison and the lakes with trumpeter swans, arranged for some of the land to be turned from farming back to its original tall grass prairie, and covered the site with sufficient roads for access. Characteristically, the roads are named after the Indian tribes that once inhabited the area.

As well as being a scientist, he was a sculptor and an architecture enthusiast, and the design of the high-rise building bore his influence. He covered the site with large abstract sculptures of his own design. At one time he took a course in welding so that he could realize his own art work. One of the pieces was an obelisk, placed at the end of a reflecting pool situated in front of the high-rise laboratory building. He called it “Acqua alle funi.”

* * *

In the early 1500s, Bernini and Michelangelo were busy building and decorating St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Some years later, it was desired to re‑erect in the middle of the circular colonnade an enormous monumental pillar from antiquity that was there. The pillar, made from granite and weighing many tons, was to be brought to a vertical position and dropped into a prepared hole so that it would stand and occupy the most prominent position at the center of the most important piazza in the world.

Elaborate preparations were made for the raising. A huge wooden structure was erected, with pulleys and ropes enabling the column to be pulled up by the combined efforts of hundreds of workers. A day was set aside. Everything was ready for the effort. As an additional guarantee of success, the Pope decreed that no one was to speak while the work was in progress, so that the instructions of the overseer could be clearly heard. The penalty for speaking is variously reported as having been death or excommunication.

The work began. The workers toiled at the ropes, and the pillar began to rise. The hot Roman sun ascended in the sky. As the angle of the great stone obelisk increased, so did the temperature of the ropes. The energy expended by all those people pulling heated them, and the blazing sun did nothing to help. In due course they became so hot they began to smoke. If they caught fire, the obelisk would come crashing down. It might even shatter.

The obelisk in St. Peter Square in Vatican City was erected in 1586. Photo: StaselnikPhoto: Staselnik

It was at this time that one of the workers, a Ligurian sailor called Bresca, decided that the rule of silence was less important than the success of the project. He shouted out: “Acqua alle funi,” meaning “water to the ropes.” The astounded overseer, realizing that this was useful advice, had water fetched and poured on the ropes. The project was saved. The obelisk adorns St. Peter’s Square to this day.

When it was reported to the Holy Father, he decided on clemency. The punishment was lifted, and the brave worker was rewarded. He and his heirs were given the privilege of a monopoly in the sale of palm leaves to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square on Palm Sunday of each year. Apparently the family survives, and still enjoys the privilege.

Wilson erected his obelisk on the site of his laboratory in May 1978.

Frank Beck is a retired CERN staff member living in England. He spent two years at the Fermilab as head of research services when the Energy Saver was being commissioned.

Editor’s note: For more about the construction and installation of “Acqua Alle Funi,” including historic photos, check out the History and Archives Project website. A May 1978 FermiNews article (see page 2) reports on the sculpture installation.

Nearly every Friday at 4 p.m., Fermilab presents the Joint Experimental-Theoretical Physics Seminar. While there are many seminars and colloquia during a week at Fermilab, this particular seminar — also known as “the wine and cheese talk” for the refreshments that are traditionally served beforehand — is the lab’s principal venue for showing off new results in particle physics. Thus, it’s always well-attended, and a coveted venue for speakers.

But why have the most important seminar of the week late on a Friday afternoon? It can’t be convenient for a visiting speaker who wants to get back home for the weekend, nor for potential audience members who might have family commitments. Of all the days of the working week for an afternoon seminar, this might be the worst.

The scheduling of the wine and cheese seminar goes back deep in the history of the lab — all the way to founding director Robert Wilson. Before he came to the plains of Illinois, Wilson was the director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Studies at Cornell University, where I got my Ph.D. and learned the story of the Friday seminar from senior faculty members there. (I might be the youngest person in the world with an answer to this question.) Wilson created a working culture at Cornell that was all about getting things done. Major accelerator projects were built under budget and ahead of schedule, and then they ran all the time. (They even ran through the December holidays; I have happy memories on being on shift for Christmas Day.) Wilson famously brought this can-do culture with him to Fermilab, as we will be hearing more about during Fermilab’s 50th anniversary year.

This Cornell University group completed the Cornell 2.2-GeV synchrotron ring in 1964. From left: Don Edwards, Al Silverman, Jack Kenemuth behind Bill Woodward, Maury Tigner behind Boyce McDaniel, Raphael Littauer behind Robert Wilson, Bob Anderson, Bruno Borgia, Peter Stein, Erwin Gabathuler, Karl Berkelman, John DeWire. Photo used with permission from A Personal History of CESR and CLEO by Karl Berkelman, 2004, World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd.

One method that Wilson had to make sure that things got done was to incentivize people to work full days. And thus, the main particle physics seminar, the Laboratory of Nuclear Physics Journal Club, was held at 4:45 p.m. on Fridays. Wilson had a simple plan: Everyone was to work all through Friday afternoon for the reward of a seminar on an interesting physics topic, and perhaps also coffee and a donut. (For some graduate students, that donut was the main meal of the day, but that is a tale for another time.) And this same modus operandi was brought to Fermilab.

Now, a seminar that started at 4:45 p.m. could easily run until 6 p.m. That might have worked when Wilson was lab director at Cornell and the physicists at the lab were all men who, if they had families, most likely had wives tending to the house. In our modern times of greater (but admittedly not perfect) gender equality and more families with two working parents, such a late seminar is inconvenient. In the mid-1990s, my adviser undertook the delicate political task of getting the seminar time changed in the name of family friendliness. She succeeded, and there was much rejoicing. For the first ever 4 p.m. Journal Club, we celebrated by hanging streamers in the seminar room and buying a cake decorated with a clock that had its hands set to the new start time. (After the change, one emeritus professor at Cornell was overheard saying, “I can finally go out to a movie on a Friday night!”) Four p.m. is also the start time of the Fermilab wine and cheese seminar, and it seems a good compromise between a full work day and a good evening with family. (The Cornell seminar now starts at 3 p.m. — pretty radical!)

The Cornell seminar had two interesting rules that were passed down from its earliest days. One was that as soon as the clock hit 6 p.m., any and all audience members were allowed to leave, without any stigma, no matter where the speaker was in the presentation. Wilson apparently did have some limits. That worked well when the seminar started at 4:45, but once we moved the seminar to 4, we were never sure when a speaker had gone on too long.

The other one was that the presentation was not allowed to get “too theoretical.” Wilson had a simple metric for that: if the mathematical symbol γ5 appeared on the presentation slides, the speaker had crossed the line. (γ5 represents a product of Dirac matrices that, when used in quantum-mechanical amplitudes, indicates a parity-violating interaction.) Apparently Wilson would start berating the speaker whenever this occurred. I never saw this rule enforced when I was a graduate student (long after Wilson had retired), but on the rare occasion when a γ5 showed up on a slide, I would notice the more senior professors exchanging knowing glances, surely remembering how things were back in the day.

I don’t know if these rules have ever been enforced at Fermilab. But if you’re ever at the wine and cheese seminar late on a Friday afternoon, and the speaker shows a γ5, take a look around the room. If you notice someone rolling his eyes and checking the clock, then feel free to say hello to me after the seminar is over. As long as it’s before 6 p.m.

When I first started out here, in 1970, I worked with the farm crew. They had us going around cleaning out a lot of the barns after the farmers who were here on the land left. Hindsight being 20/20, there was a lot of really neat stuff that we threw away: We weren’t trying to preserve history or anything like that. We just wanted the barns cleaned out. For one, we needed a place to store the hay that we were growing for the buffalo.

That was some of the hardest work I ever did. We had a barn that we had stacked to the rafters with hay. But some of the baled hay hadn’t dried enough, and it spontaneously combusted. We came in the next day, and all that was left was the barn’s foundation.

I was also one of the people who cut the grass. It was more difficult than I had realized. The lab was just starting, and the equipment they had was just awful. The grass was very tall, and we had these push mowers. You’d go two feet and they’d clog up. It was similar with raking: They gave us garden rakes instead of a grass rakes. We finally got a riding mower that summer, and we were supposed to take turns using it. There were three guys that were messing around with it — fighting over it — and at some point they all bailed while it was running, and the mower ran into a tree. It was wrecked.

That was the first time I’d seen people get fired from the lab. They asked only a few of us to come back that summer. I was asked to come back, and I guess the rest is kind of history.

Sometime around 1973 I was the crew chief on shift for the Meson Lab. The electrical-power hand-off between the Accelerator Division and Meson Lab (part of the Research Division) was at the Meson Target Area, located between the MS-1 and MS-2 service buildings. MS-1 had power supplies belonging to each group.

A power supply failed in the MS-1 service building, which belonged to the Accelerator Division, and the Meson Lab would be down until it was fixed. After a fairly long wait, I drove down to the MS-1 area to talk to the Switchyard crew that was working on the power supply.

When I went in, I found a power supply scattered across the floor, but no one in the building. Just as I was about to leave, the door nearly flew off the hinges. In came Helen Edwards like a streak of lightning. She immediately asked in a very intimidating fashion, “What is taking so damn long to fix this supply?” I looked back and said, “I don’t know. When I see your guys I’ll ask!” Without missing a beat Helen asked, “Well who are you?”. I explained I was the Meson Crew chief, to which she responded, “Oh!”, turned around and left as fast as she came in.

Helen and I became good friends over the years, and when she moved into the office next to mine I reminded her of our early encounter, to which she said, “Yes, that sounds like me!” One of the many Fermilab friends I miss.

Fermilab founding director Robert Wilson signs the contract with the architectural and engineering company DUSAF in 1967.

In the early 1970s, many of us were working lots of overtime, about 12-hour days. One time, I’d come to work at 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning, worked until 6 or 7 at night, and had just gotten home when I got a phone call: “We need your help.”

It was about DUSAF, the engineering firm that designed the Main Ring, Linac and other conventional facilities.

The DUSAF organization was moving out of their Hinsdale offices, and the mover they’d hired had gone on strike. I was told that DUSAF had to move out by midnight or pay major penalties from the office building they were renting. I was asked if I could grab a vehicle and go to Hinsdale with anybody I could find to help move their stuff out. Others had already been called.

I had a cousin who was working here at the time. I picked him up, and we went to Fermilab and picked up a step van. When we arrived in Hinsdale, a moving van was already loaded, but nobody was doing anything with it. We went into the building where lots of odds and ends were still in the office building. Many people had come to help. It was a madhouse. Everyone just walked in the building, grabbed whatever they could, brought it out, threw it in a truck and drove it to the laboratory. There wasn’t much packing. Whatever you could get in the truck, we moved. I made one trip. Once we got back to Fermilab, I stayed to help sort and unload throughout the night.

We worked all day that Friday, till 5 p.m. We finally got them moved out.

That was probably the most overtime I’d ever gotten in my life.

George Davidson is the head of transportation services at Fermilab.

Way back when, I was in the Materials Supply Group, I was in charge of looking through lists of equipment that laboratories and government facilities had placed in excess — things they no longer needed — and that could be transferred to another laboratory.

I had heard through my boss Norm Hill and other higher-ups that they were looking for a liquid-helium plant. They needed it to cool the magnets in the Main Ring and to do their experiments for the future Energy Doubler. So I was looking and, lo and behold, I came across a liquid-helium plant. It was thousands and thousands of dollars.

We worked it out with Norm Hill and Jack Jaeger, the directorate approved it, and it was all free of charge. All we had to do was pay the shipping. It was a pretty huge acquisition. It was from a facility in California.

It arrived in pieces on big flatbed trucks — huge trailer-type vehicles — and had to be all put together.

People were so happy to get it free of charge. I saved the lab mega bucks.

You can read about the liquid-helium plant in the Dec. 11, 1975, issue of FermiNews, page 1.

When I started at the lab in December 1977, work on the dipole magnets for the Tevatron was well under way in what was then called the Energy Doubler Department in the Technical Services Section.

My first project was to work on the quadrupole magnets and spools, which hadn’t really been started yet. The spool is a special unit that attaches to each quadrupole and the adjacent dipole. It contains what we used to call “the stuff that wouldn’t fit anywhere else” – correction magnets and their power leads, quench stoppers to dump the energy from all the magnets, beam position monitors, relief valves, things like that.

At the time, we were located in the Village in the old director’s complex, which now houses the daycare center. We had a large open area where the engineers, designers and drafters worked and a small conference room where we kept up-to-date models of some of the things we were working on.

For several weeks we worked feverishly on the design of the quadrupole and spool combination — we in the design room and the model makers in the model shop on their full-scale models. We would work all week, then have a meeting with the lab director, Bob Wilson. Dr. Wilson would come out to see how we were doing, but more importantly to see what our designs looked like.

It turns out he was very interested in that and very fussy that things — even those buried in the tunnel — looked just so.

After every one of those meetings we’d walk back into the design room and tell everyone to tear up what we’d been working on and start over. The same would hold for the model makers. This went on for several weeks until Dr. Wilson was happy. We began to really dread going into those meetings, but in the end they served us very well.


I think I can tell this now because I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired. Around a year after I joined Fermilab, in the spring of 1992 or 1993, I got into the habit of a lunch time walk on the Ring Road with John Isenhour, who had come here a year or two earlier. John’s job was to manage the library VAX (yes, the library had its own little DEC VAX at In warm weather it was nice to go outside for a few minutes and get a little sun and fresh air.

On one of those days we were just getting started when John saw a big white tanker trailer used for liquid-nitrogen parked next to the A-1 service building on Main Ring Road. It had an open spigot and it was dumping liquid nitrogen on the ground. No one else was around and we had no idea why that was being done, but John put on a pair of gloves he happened to have and found an empty metal coffee can lying on the ground. Holding it under the tank tap by the top edge, he managed to get a quart of liquid nitrogen.

With it boiling away, we walked back into the high-rise. I had some initial misgivings about this, but those evaporated with the nitrogen while we talked of hammering nails with bananas and all the other fun stuff you can do with a very cold liquid. We got on a west side elevator and rode it to the third floor and walked out into the middle of the library, where we proceeded to play around with what was left. By then it was all gone, after only a few minutes, and before we (fortunately) could do much with it.

What mildly amazes me now is how at the time, this seemed like a typical Fermilab thing to do — have fun with unusual states of matter if given the opportunity. I have not been here 50 years, so I can’t be certain about this, but I bet this was the only time a cryogenic liquid was in the Fermilab Library.

I first came to Fermilab in January 1989, when I was a first-year student at The University of Chicago. I had just finished my first quarter of introductory honors physics, which was taught by Henry Frisch. Occasionally he had mentioned to the class that he did research at Fermilab, and there was a memorable day when he taught at 9:30 a.m. after being on shift overnight, but beyond that I knew essentially nothing about the lab. For reasons that I still don’t know, Henry offered me a job as an undergraduate researcher in his group when the course was over. On my first day on the job, he needed to find something for me to do. I was quickly spun off to graduate student Aaron Roodman, who was trying to track down the extent of the effect of a fault in the CDF trigger. This would require processing a bunch of data files at Fermilab, which thus required an account on FNALD, the VAX computer that CDF had for itself at Fermilab.

Today you can get a Fermilab computing account by filling out a web form identifying yourself, your affiliation and a Fermilab point of contact. But in 1989, you had to physically appear at Fermilab and register as a user on paper. And thus we found a day for me to drive with Henry from Hyde Park to the lab. Was there anything I needed to bring with me as a first-time visitor? “I don’t know how long we’re going to be there,” said Henry. “Maybe a change of underwear.” I was pretty sure he was kidding, but on the appointed morning, I did have a pair of underwear in my backpack, just in case.

My memories of that first visit are a bit vague. I don’t think I was expecting the modest front entrance, the wide-open prairie spaces or the bison herd. Even though I didn’t have much to do (as someone who had just gotten a computing account and didn’t really know what to do with it), I did spend the whole day there, as I had to wait to get a ride back home. (I ended up going back with Claudio Campagnari in Paul Tipton’s car; Claudio and I are currently collaborators on CMS.) While at the lab, I did attend a CDF data analysis meeting, which I didn’t understand at all, but which I later realized had one of the first presentations showing that B mesons could be constructed at CDF; this was never in the original physics program for the experiment and was a testament to the flexibility of the hadron collider program and the creativity of particle physicists.

But I remember that I returned to the dorm at the end of the day with my first Fermilab ID card, which identified me as user 5022V. I spent a lot of time that evening looking at it. There it was, a physical manifestation of my identity as a particle physicist — even though I didn’t think of myself as a particle physicist, and I couldn’t have known that this would be part of my identity for the rest of my life.

I have held a Fermilab ID card ever since — through my undergraduate years on CDF analyzing Run 0 data, as a postdoc at Johns Hopkins University and then the University of Michigan working on CDF during Run 2 of the Tevatron, and since 2004 as a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln working on DZero and then CMS. My Fermilab ID identifies me as part of a community that is now 50 years old, a community of scientists that has grown to be international, spanning all aspects of particle physics, that has pride in its achievements and contributions to society and great hope for what the future will bring. I have always been honored to be associated with Fermilab and my fellow Fermilab ID carriers — and I’ve always been comforted in the knowledge that if my ID card is found it can be dropped in any U.S. Mail Box and returned to Box 500, Batavia IL 60510, postage guaranteed.

Strictly speaking, I was not a user from 1992 to 1997, when I was a graduate student at Cornell working at the synchrotron there. But throughout that time I carried my previous Fermilab ID card in my wallet, as if it were some kind of good-luck charm. When I returned to Fermilab in 1997 and renewed my user status, no one had asked me what had become of the previous expired ID. And thus I still have it in my wallet — a memory of my younger days, of the start of my career in particle physics and of our country’s flagship particle physics laboratory.

The NALREC picnics of the early days featured games, rides and dunkings in the dunk tank. Photo: Fermilab

In the 1980s I’d joined the NAL Recreation Committee, or NALREC. It was a lot of fun. We’d host steak fries, sometimes charging people for food based on their seniority at the lab. We’d also host picnics in the Village. Everybody volunteered, and it was wonderfully family-oriented. We had kids, kids’ games, bands, DJs, horses, Ferris wheels. We also had a beer truck come in.

We’d bring out the dunk tank at the picnic. The tank wasn’t the best in the world, so I did some negotiating with different division and sections and managed to beg, borrow and find materials to make a new one. I picked up an old trailer from Roads and Grounds and persuaded the weld shop into welding the trailer, steel and unistrut together. Then I had some summer students help paint it. The tank had two stalls, and it came out pretty well. I and a number of helpers ran the dunk tank for several years as part of the NALREC contributions.

For those unfamiliar with a dunk tank: It’s a mechanism for good-humored humiliation. A volunteer (the humiliatee) steps inside the tank, which is partially filled with water. He sits on a small platform situated a short distance above the water and attached to a lever that, when pushed, releases the platform, causing the poor volunteer to fall into the water.

The typical method for pushing the lever is for a second volunteer — perhaps someone with a bone to pick — to throw a ball at it.

We managed to talk one particular gentleman to get into the dunk tank. He was a favorite to dunk. When people saw that he was the dunkee, we got a line 200 feet long queuing up to throw that ball. The end of the lever had a paddle about four or five inches around, but for this individual, I made a bigger one, clamped to the end. It was about a foot around. He got mad at me. But it went well.

Other VIPs got in the dunk tank, too.

You can have a look at the rebuilt dunk tank that George Davidson helped construct in a 1991 article from FermiNews (see page 4). For pictures of the earlier dunk tank and Fermilab picnics (including one of Leon Lederman in the tank), see page 2 of this 1980 issue and page 4 of this 1984 issue of FermiNews.


One summer I was working under the supervision of Marleigh Sheaff, who was a user at University of Wisconsin–Madison. We were doing some calibration work with transition radiation detectors. We worked in the Tagged Photon Lab, and for whatever reason, it was exciting to get the key to open up the enclosure and go inside. There were snakes, dead spiders and squirrels in the old beamline where E769 and E791 used to be. I’m still trying to find the exact same gate and lab I used to go into.

Sometimes as a student you work late, and you wander around different floors. I could never get over the fact that Wilson Hall has no office numbers — at least it hasn’t had them for a long time. (There are a few office numbers these days.) One time I found a supply cabinet, and sitting there was a notebook, one of those quadrille engineering note pads. I was excited. I thought, “Could I have a notebook from Fermilab? Would I be stealing? But I’m going to use it for my summer job!” I took it, and I used it. I kind of wish I’d taken more, but I didn’t! I was a good citizen.